The thinking man’s troublemaker: Noam Chomsky

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By David Hutt
July 2, 2015
Southeast Asia Globe

What do you make of the potential for conflict between the US and China, particularly since the US launched its ‘pivot to Asia’ a few years ago and with China flexing its muscles in the South China Sea?

It’s undoubtedly a very serious issue, but it’s worth noting that the conflict is off the coast of China. It’s not off the coast of the US – there’s no conflict over the Caribbean, or the eastern Pacific off California. This is a reflection of the residue of the imperial period when the US emerged as the global hegemon. It’s also a reflection of Japanese imperialism. Japan, during its imperial phase, had taken over vast areas of the Pacific and declared them part of its imperial system, and still maintains many of them. And, of course, China is a rising power and is challenging many of these arrangements off of its coast through the areas in which China’s main trade proceeds.

This leads not just to a conflict between China and the US, but also with China and Southeast Asian states that have their own interests that are often in conflict with China’s. So, for example, China building on the islands in the South China Sea [is balanced by] Vietnam also building on islands there. Of course, the Vietnamese [works] are a tiny fraction of those that China is doing, reflecting the relative power of the two states.

We know what the US has done in the region – since the Second World War it has been devastating – but what about China? I might tell you an anecdote: I visited Hanoi in 1970 during the brief bombing pause. They had invited me to lecture at the polytechnic – well, the ruins of it. On my first morning there I was taken on a visit of the war museum. I was exposed to a long lecture about Vietnam’s wars with China, thousands of years ago. What they were telling us, very clearly, was that right now the US is bombing and destroying us but, one day, the US will go away, and China will always be there. That was their real problem, and this was right in the midst of the intensive US bombing of Vietnam. And this is the understandable perception across Southeast Asia.

There is this ongoing conflict between a rising China and regional powers and, the global hegemon, the US. I think it will be resolved peacefully, which doesn’t mean justly, because real conflict would be far too dangerous.

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